Lawrence Kaplan (Ed)
Ktav Publishing, £24.50
Moses Maimonides, or Rambam, as he is often called, wrote his Guide of the Perplexed to assuage the unease felt by many of his coreligionists at the apparent inconsistencies between science and philosophy on the one hand and the Torah on the other. For example, the former regard God as incorporeal, while the language of the latter suggests God has a body.
Maimonides realised that some of the ways through which, in the Guide, he sought to reconcile these opposing views, might unsettle the faith and observance of some of his less intellectually adept coreligionists. Consequently, he concealed them within the work so that only its more discerning readers, whose faith and commitment he felt could withstand becoming apprised of them, would notice.
This led Maimonides to create as many ways of reading his Guide as readers of it, leading to the jibe that, as well as Mymonides, there is a Yourmonides, as well as a His- and Hermonides!
And now, with the publication of these extensive notes made by an attendee of a lecture course on the Guide given at New York's Yeshiva University in 1950-1951 by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik - best known to his Modern Orthodox followers as "the Rav" - there needs to be added to the stock of different ways of understanding this work what can perhaps best be described as the Rav'smonides.
The Rambam, as Soloveitchik portrays him, is very much a product of the Rav's own imagination and bears a much closer resemblance to Soloveitchik himself than it does to the austere, medieval philosopher whose elaborate cosmological arguments for God's existence Soloveitchik dismisses as of little account. Instead, he observes: "Only with regard to [the religious experience permeating the work] does Maimonides achieve greatness."
Still more idiosyncratically, Soloveitchik seeks to drive a firm wedge between Maimonides and the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, both of whom consider the loving contemplation of God, rather than any form of practical activity, to be that in which humankind's highest good resides. Despite his many words in the Guide and elsewhere that strongly suggest Maimonides concurs with them, Soloveitchik is unwilling to attribute their view to him because of the threat he considers it would pose to Jewish law - halachah - and its observance.
That Maimonides might have shared this view is just too unconscionable for Soloveitchik to countenance. He manages to reinstate halachah at the pinnacle of authentic Jewish life in Maimonides' view by arguing that, according to him, consciousness of their ultimate, unbridgeable distance from God must always generate in human beings a "fear of God that means that… the role of the norm can never be eliminated… Here Maimonides' halachic commitment refutes the Aristotelian and neo-Platonic content of the Guide."
As Lawrence Kaplan is forced to acknowledge in his masterful editorial introduction to the lectures: "[W]hen the Rav contended that, 'After all his adventures in the field of philosophy [Maimonides] came back to Halachah", he was speaking more of himself than he was speaking of Maimonides".
As a window into Soloveitchik's somewhat bleak and lonely soul, these lecture notes, plus Kaplan's introduction and accompanying notes and interpolations, are invaluable. As a window into Rambam, reading them is like looking through a glass darkly.